Michael Moore could have died last week: "Trying to get back to just breathing is enough of a burden"

Moore got severely ill with pneumonia and clearly feared worst. Now he's trying to save his best film in years

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published February 10, 2016 8:33PM (EST)

  (AP/Evan Agostini)
(AP/Evan Agostini)

Michael Moore almost died last week.  He got severely ill with pneumonia and ended up in the ICU. "Things didn't look good," he posted to social media at the time. This week, he updated fans on Facebook by saying: "Trying to get back to just breathing is enough of a burden."

He had been working to support efforts to bring justice to Flint, Michigan, in the wake of the water crisis in his hometown.  He had offered an impassioned endorsement of Bernie Sanders for president.  And he was also promoting his first film in six years, “Where to Invade Next,” which hits a wide release in theaters this week.

Moore’s hospital stay comes after a tumultuous year.  He's recovering not only from a serious illness, but also from a range of personal attacks. In the midst of these challenges he is also launching one of the most important films of his career—a film that offers the most spirited revolutionary politics we have seen from Moore yet.

As “Where to Invade Next” hits theaters, there is little doubt that it will spark yet more right-wing attacks on Moore as a lefty moonbat, but it is also likely to draw comparisons with Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper.”  If “American Sniper” was about celebrating a hero defending us from post 9/11 terror, “Where to Invade Next” is about rejecting the 9/11 mindset entirely.

The film opens with a group of generals asking Moore to bail them out, since everything they have done has failed.  Carrying an American flag, he sets off on a journey to fix the mess they’ve made and help make America great again.  The image of Michael Moore to the rescue is a brilliant counter to the flag waving at the end of “American Sniper.” The irony is clear and there’s little doubt it will enrage the right.

Moore is no stranger to controversy and he has a long history of provoking his detractors.  He was booed at the Oscars in 2003 when he won for “Bowling for Columbine.”  He has been the target of death threats and attempted assaults.  He once had a few truckloads of manure dumped at his Michigan home. Someone even tried to blow up his house.

He is also a favorite for right-wing media attacks. Bill O’Reilly mockingly suggested he would like to kill Moore back in 2004. Glenn Beck piled on.

Then came the events of last year.  It started with the release of “American Sniper.”  Moore tweeted that snipers were cowards that would shoot you in the back.   Given the messianic adoration of “American Sniper”’s hero Chris Kyle, Moore’s tweet led to a vicious backlash.  The right-wing feeding frenzy was on.

After his critical sniper tweet, Moore immediately became a target again. Gun-lover Sarah Palin held up a sign with the two Os of his name in cross hairs that read “FUC_ YOU Michael Moore.” Then Sean Hannity talked about Moore so much in his special on “American Sniper” that you might have wondered if Moore himself appeared in the film. During Hannity’s panel discussio, he joked about the idea of Chris Kyle choking Moore to “sleep.”

Eastwood, who forgot having already threatened to kill Moore once after the release of “Bowling for Columbine,” threatened to kill him again. In April 2015, Eastwood remarked at Cinema Con “Everyone keeps saying I threatened to kill Michael Moore. That isn’t true.” He then added: “It isn’t a bad idea.”

Moore’s big sin was to suggest that snipers are cowards.  He had deep personal reasons to attack the image of the sniper as heroic, but Moore’s personal story aside, he asks a valuable question:

Since when did America become a country that celebrated snipers?

He reminded folks after the Martin Luther King weekend wide opening of “American Sniper” that Dr. King himself had died due to a sniper.

His point—and it’s an important one—is that the image of the sniper is the image of the sneak who picks off vulnerable targets. The sniper hides and ambushes.   Now Chris Kyle may have been a great sniper and he may have demonstrated courage in his job.  He may have been a great war hero. But Moore’s argument is that the notion of the sniper itself is deeply disturbing since the sniper is typically the bad guy.  Attacks on our presidents and leaders have often come from snipers.  He contends that “sniper” is the term used for the invading aggressor, not the person defending their home.

Now we can quarrel over Moore’s interpretation of the role of the sniper. Certainly the case can be made that sharpshooters are a valuable part of any combat mission regardless of the side one is fighting on.   But Moore is highlighting the sniper as a metaphor for American heroics, and when we consider the metaphor we can see Moore’s point.

Snipers are loners. Even if they work in teams, they do not form part of the collective.  They conceal themselves.  They are trained to zero in on a target and destroy it.  They may be effective killers, but they don’t offer a very encouraging symbol for society. Considered that way we can see how the idea of the sniper would bother a progressive thinker like Moore.  If a sniper embodies the new American hero -- Moore’s logic goes-- then we are all in big trouble.

While he won’t come out and say that “Where to Invade Next” is his answer to “American Sniper,” I believe it is.  In the wake of yet another wave of death threats, attacks, harassment, and media bashing, Moore answered by making the most provocative and politically insightful film of his career.

“Where to Invade Next” turns the logic of “American Sniper” on its head. If “American Sniper” celebrates a military culture of fear and aggression in response to 9/11, then “Where to Invade Next” celebrates our founding ideals.  Ironically reminding viewers that the military has not helped us solve any problems since World War II, “Where to Invade Next” begins with Moore leading an invasion of other nations so that he can bring back their good ideas.  Rather than solve problems with weapons, Moore solves problems by learning what works.

The film is hilarious and tragic. It is Moore at his most angry and most optimistic.  It offers silly scenes with Moore speaking broken French to schoolchildren alongside intense conversations with women leaders in Iceland who ask Moore why the United States can’t get it together. It contrasts hopeful images of anti-recidivist prison practices in Norway with vicious images of police brutality here at home.

While in Germany, Moore marvels at worker rights and health care benefits, but it is a conversation in a school that really shocks him.  He watches students eloquently speak about the Holocaust and about their need to remember it so as not to repeat it. Moore then says he comes from “a great country that was born in genocide and built on the backs of slaves,” but he wonders if there is any chance we will ever publicly acknowledge our own past.

Given the historical amnesia in “American Sniper,” such dreams seem unlikely.  If we can’t get our recent past right, a deeper sense of history seems out of reach.

Back in July, only months after the “sniper” attacks on Moore had begun to subside, he began to speak about his new film—a film that he explained he had been working on secretly.  In a Periscope video he explained that the film had been a long time in the making: "I don't think there's any one trigger. We've all been living in this time, certainly post-9/11,  [where we] need to always have an enemy — where's our next enemy?” He explains that the “infinite war” with no progress is the “necessary satire” of the film.

While Moore explains that he began thinking of the film after visiting Europe at 19 and observing a number of progressive practices, there seems little doubt that his new film aims squarely at shaking up the rhetoric of doom and gloom that has taken over much U.S. politics today.   It also aims at the delusion and aggression that was evident in “American Sniper.”

In response to the threats against his life that followed the “American Sniper” fallout, Moore made a film that asks deep questions about the flaws in our political system.  He answered the attacks on his life and his character with a film that offers viewers answers to our most pressing social challenges.  In response to a political culture dominated by fear, aggression, and paralysis, Moore offers viewers a satirical and serious roadmap to productive social change.

Most importantly, the film is not meant as an attack on the United States; instead it is a rallying cry to revolution. As the film debuts on the heels of Bernie Sanders’s significant win in the New Hampshire primary, it’s worth asking whether it can help spark the revolution that Sanders referenced in his victory speech.  The Sanders slogan, “Not me, US” resonates deeply with Moore’s own populist energy in “Where to Invade Next."

Contrasting the GOP model of the lone sniper protecting victimized sheep — an image not totally unlike the one offered by Donald Trump’s campaign -- Moore offers a vision of collective political action. The final scenes of the film are all focused on real examples of ways people have made a difference.  Moore reminds viewers that change is possible. In one scene he talks with a friend about his experiences of seeing the Berlin Wall fall.  It started with a hammer, then a chisel, then before long a movement for justice had mobilized that could not be stopped.  It’s just that simple and it can be done.

The film closes with one of the most inspiring images of resistance we have seen take place in the U.S. in the past year.  I won’t spoil it, but I will say it has special meaning for the South Carolina primaries.

Moore might still be wheezing with pneumonia, but his film promises to breathe life where we need it most.

Despite Death Threats, Michael Moore Upbeat About America's Future

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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